Monday, 14 August 2017

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Bad Trips in the Desert

I've always had a fondness for movies where road trips turn into automotive conflicts. The kind of movies that owe their conception to Duel. The kind of movies that feature dust-bowl towns, dangerous locals and Police that might be in on the whole thing. The kind of movie where the driver gets tired or has to search for something in the glove box, only to find upon returning attention to the road a big-rig or bus heading straight towards him, and managing to save himself with a last minute swerve off-road. Y'know, those kinds of movies. Here are three belters.

Breakdown (Johnathan Mostow, 1997)

Breakdown is what you get when you mix a little Hitchcock into your cross-country car chase. Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan accept help from a truck driver when they break down in the dessert. The driver offers to drop Quinlan off at the nearest truck-stop while Russel fixes the car but when he eventually gets to the meeting he discovers She never arrived. 

Russell searches desperately in the vast and empty wasteland but finds only a conspiracy. Director Johnathan Mostow turns those screws putting Russell, who plays an everyman rather than an action hero, through his paces. Unlike a lot of movies such as this the tension never drops, it doesn't spill outside of it's own internal logic for cheap thrills and its climax is a small scale but thrilling car-on-car battle. 

Race With The Devil (Jack Starrett, 1975)

I'd seen this movie as a kid and mentally filed it as 'not scary enough to be a horror, not enough action to be a chase movie' but having seen it recently (for the first time since I was a child) I can firmly state that as a kid I was a prick, because this movie rocks. 

Two couples take their motor-home across America to go skiing. They pull up to sleep one night and the two husbands (played by Warren Oates and Peter Fonda) witness some devil worshipping that ends in the sacrifice of a young girl. They report it to the local Police but find themselves hunted from state to state by Satanists.

It is a great concept and the movie pulls it off, but it is not without its problems. The movie has an issue with tension. Every time something unpleasant happens to them they just pull into a nice spot and try and get on with their holiday. Of course something ghastly and macabre occurs again and the cycle starts all over. Although the severity of the horrible event escalates the impact these events are having on our characters doesn't. They all seem to get over each event pretty quickly. It particularly hurts the ending which tries to convince us its an unexpected and shocking reveal but feels no less shocking than any other beat in the movie. As a result it just seems to end.

That being said there is a monster of a chase sequence that I had completely forgotten about and was not expecting. In the climactic moments the motor-home is besieged by trucks and cars in a high speed chase while devil worshippers leap from vehicle to vehicle trying to get inside. As Oates runs them off the road Fonda hangs outside blasting away with a shotgun. There are flips and rolls, explosions and one poor pagan getting slammed into a low bridge. It isn't quite The Road Warrior level, but it is a brilliantly staged and captured action sequence that comes very close.

The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

I think The Hitcher might be a perfect movie. That doesn't mean its the best movie ever, it just means that considering the kind of movie it is I can't think of anything it would need to improve it. The plot is simple: C.Thomas Howell is driving across the desert and picks up Rutger Hauer's hitch-hiker. He then immediately fucking regrets it.

This movie has everything you could want. Well measured and executed tension, high-octane vehicular action and moments of proper horror. The opening moments where the two converse and Hauer's intentions are slowly revealed is one my favourite movie openings ever and would work well as a horror short alone. 

There are so many effective moments - the jail cell opening, the finger - so good. Hauer is phenomenal in this. Rather than play the villain as a Terminator style killing machine or parade well-worn 'psycho' ticks he gives the character charm, swagger and a sense of humour. The diner scene in particular is wonderfully played by both actors.

It too has a pretty destructive car chase. Not only do Police cars tumble down the highway but a chopper gets in on the action too.

The exact mix ingredients in these kinds of movies can vary, some leaning heavy on the supernatural (such as The Car) while others playing with 70's car chase movie vibes in addition to horror (like Death Proof). These three films, however, not only blend their elements in a very particular way but manage to keep them pure across three decades. Aside from some fashion tells these screenshots could all have been from the same movie. I am by no means saying these three are superior however they exists as examples of a carefully mixed cocktail of suspense, horror and balls-out stunt work. 

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Screamers: The Hunting (Sheldon Wilson, 2009)

Hey, remember Screamers; the '95 Peter Weller movie about burrowing assassin droids that have wiped out humanity on a distant planet? No? Well, it's pretty good. It also, surprisingly, spawned a sequel.

A rescue team are sent to intercept a distress signal on a planet riddled with Screamers. Once there they are marooned with a small group of survivors and forced to battle their way back home through a seemingly unbeatable army of mechanical bastards.

This movie tries so hard and gets so much right. The visual effects, for starters, are pretty good. Digital work is good enough to be un-intrusive while there is a surprising amount of practical effects. Good ones too. There were also a few shots, including a wonderful set extension, where I couldn't work out whether it was miniature or CGI - always a good sign.

The cast are game and features an early role for Stephen 'Arrow' Amell and an extended cameo from Lance Henriksen. Aside from Henriksen, however, no-one is particularly good. Amell comes close as he broods with the best of them but when he opens his mouth to speak he adopts a raspy whisper and a squinted eye that makes him look like Clint Eastwood with a mouthful of ulcers. In fact, the film pretty much stands still any time drama is required. It is shame because when we get to the good bits they are quite accomplished.

The Screamers themselves are a varied bunch. As established in the first movie they are able to evolve themselves and now take a variety of forms, even masquerading as humans. This presents the opportunity for some Thing level paranoia. An opportunity that of course the film pisses up a wall. They don't even generate Crash and Burn levels of paranoia for Christ's sake. Remember Crash and Burn? No, not that one either?

Thankfully when the humanoid Screamers reveal themselves they turn into pretty awesome mechanical nightmares - a cross between a Terminator and the Reapers from Blade 2 with a little Annihilator thrown in for good measure (Annihilator anyone? Is anyone even out there?). In a standout scene a couple of these bad-boys go nuts, punching through people in wonderfully practical splatter effects. Oh yes, the gore is GOOD.

Which is why I was utterly shocked to discover the film was made in 2009! Even with the presence of Amell (whose age I do not know) I would have guessed late nineties only because it looks and feels like a straight to video sci-fi sequel from that era (and I mean that as a compliment). Finding out it was made in the late noughties, an era of straight to DVD filmmaking synonymous with shitty digital wankery, only generates far more respect for the effort made with this movie.

Look, it isn't good, certainly a step down from the first movie (which you should seriously check-out) but it you are looking for something that scratched a particular aesthetic itch and don't mind drifting off during the bits where people say things at each other you will be rewarded with some good action, fun splatter and a menagerie of murderous mechanoids.

Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986)

It sometimes feels weird recommending something you know most of your audience will have likely seen. Chopping Mall, for example, is a bonafide cult classic and one that I fully expect most who are into this kind of thing will have seen long ago. It has, however,  escaped me until the time of writing this. And so I may be late to the party but I still managed to have a lot of fun.

Automated security bots are introduced to patrol a mall but a lightening storm has made them go haywire to the detriment of the group of teenagers who have stayed beyond closing hours for a party.

Jim Wynorski operates in the same sphere as Corman and Olen Ray - gore, nudity and tongue lodged in cheek. The opening of Chopping Mall features speeded up footage, double-takes and slapstick while the fast-food joint the kids eat in is covered in posters of movies either made by the Director or Production team. Although the build up is nice there was a worry that leaning on the humour and self-awareness a little too much might rob the film of its stakes. Thankfully once the movie slips into slasher mechanics and the robots go on the hunt the film generates some genuine excitement.

The siege aspects are genuinely tense, the deaths count and our final girl, decked out to look like waitress Sarah Conner, is a badass. The robots, although goofy looking in an endearing way, also manage to generate some menace.

That is not to say that the fun is drained from the rest of the movie. Wynorski manages to balance both fun and edge in manner far more measured than one would expected from a killer robot in a shopping mall movie.

For starters the deaths are joyful. A couple of early electrocution deaths fall a little flat but once they start shooting War of the Worlds style death rays I was positively giddy. Considering the low budget feel of the film there is some real production value on display. The shoot-outs twixt robot and teenagers (who have procured firearms from a sporting store) are big and destructive, there are explosions and full-body burns and even a wicked exploding head.

The film feels like it could exist in the same world as Robocop (released a year later) as both the design of the robot and the light satire of commercialism feel consistent, only this ramps up the teen slasher aesthetic for more surface level, but equally satisfying, thrills. Cult gold.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Jaguar Lives (Ernest Pintoff, 1979)

Secret agent Johnathan Cross AKA Jaguar is double-crossed on a mission and severely injured. Once recovered he is sent on a globe trotting mission to hunt down an evil kingpin. This vehicle for Joe Lewis, a martial arts champion and student of Bruce Lee, tries to emulate Bond movies while livening them up with a little martial arts action and manages to miss the mark on both counts. That is not to say it doesn't try - by god it tries.

What surprised me most on first viewing is how much money had been spent on a kung-fu flick I'd never heard of. The opening sequence features a gorgeous location, a shoot-out on a cable car/elevator and a pretty impressive explosion achieved through some unusually great miniature work.

In fact the production value is consistently good. The cast is exceptional and includes Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Barbara Bach, John Huston, Woody Strode to name but a few. It is no coincidence that many of the cast have been picked due to their association with Bond. The movie tries to out-do Bond at every stage featuring some nice stunt work and about a thousand different exotic locations. So how does it fail?

Having more locations than your average Bond movie is one thing, but cramming them into one narrative organically is pretty difficult. And so instead of a developing, escalating spy story we have a plodding travel diary as Jaguar visits a location, meets a guest star, maybe has a fight then moves to the next location. Each of the stellar cast mentioned only get a few minutes screen time before giving Jaguar the info he needs to zoom off to the next location. A pretty repetitive beat quickly forms making a fairly manageable running time seem like an eternity.

This might not be so bad if every location visited had a themed action sequence but this is a movie that commits perhaps the biggest action film sin: not enough action, and what there is doesn't really work. Joe Lewis has skills, clearly, but each fight is so short he never gets the chance to show off anything more than a few kicks. A stunt involving Jaguar hanging on to the top of a speeding car starts exciting but ends not in a spectacular crash or a fight, but simply with the driver getting away. A stand-off in a factory promises the sight of Lewis taking on an army of workers but after a few kicks he scurries over some boxes and gets away. The fights are indicative of the movie's key problem: rather than sticking with something and exploring it, it shows us a glimpses then races off to the next thing.

That is not to say there are no notable moments. Jaguar fighting two guys on motorbikes is inventive if not extensive, a graveyard gauntlet works if only because after each short fight is over Jaguar walks right into another one and the final fight atop the turrets of a desert fortress looks great and if it were matched by choereopgraghy could have been an all-time iconic martial arts sequence.

Lewis doesn't have Lee's charisma (who does?) but is no worse than Chuck Norris. It's clear though the Producer's felt he'd need some help making a splash so they surround him with locations and stars. The end result, though, is that rather than elevate him they drown him out.

The film also suffers from being entirely devoid of vibe. Just thinking how fucking COOL Enter the Dragon is. This movie is the equivalent of a pastel sweater tied-off around the shoulders.

Lewis got to make a few more movies. Force: Five, directed by Dragon's Robert Clouse is better in many ways. He's supported with other martial artists, such as Richard Norton and Benny Urquidez and although it is basically an inferior re-tread of Enter the Dragon it is a far more successful action vehicle for its star. If only that movie had this movie's budget.

Or, better still, if only this movie showed off its star more than its passport and casting agent.